Help your Early Rising Toddler Sleep Later Using the Spring Forward Time Change
Updated: Mar 13
Parents of babies and small children groan whenever a Daylight-Saving time change approaches. The fall back time change is the trickiest because it can lend to children waking earlier in the morning. Most parents I know are trying to help their children sleep later in the morning and so the thought of their children waking earlier is torture. Aside from the Spring Forward time change meaning that spring is just around the corner, it also means that this could be your chance to help your toddler or old child sleep in later!
The technique I’m going to outline is really targeted toward preschool age children or older as it uses an "okay to wake" type of clock. Some two-year olds may have success using an okay to wake clock as well, however I find that 3 years of age seems to be when the "okay to wake" clock really clicks with kids.
If you do have a younger child or baby, you can use the same technique as far as timing goes. Instead of having the clock indicate when it’s time to wake for the day, you can be the signal by using a dramatic wake up. This means going into the room with positive energy, turning on the lights, flipping open the blinds/curtains and announcing, “Good morning baby it’s time to wake up!” with a big smile on your face.
How Early is Too Early to Wake Up?
First, we should discuss what an early wake up actually is. Quote unquote normal wake up times are anywhere between 5:30 AM and 7:00 AM. This means that anything earlier than 5:30 AM is considered “early”.
However, since all babies and children are different, I usually find this cookie cutter definition inadequate. If your child was sleeping until 7:00 AM and then slowly over time begins waking at 6:00 AM this could also be considered an early wake up. This is especially true if you find them to be exhibiting signs of being overtired around 5:00 PM each evening, and/or if they are fighting bedtime, and waking throughout the night.
If your child has always started the day at 5:30 AM and seems well-rested then that might not be an early wake up for your individual child. It’s important to understand if your child’s wake up time is actually too early or their normal because you want to adjust your expectations accordingly.
If you do believe your child is waking too early for their individual needs, you can use these techniques. If your child is waking early but seems well rested and you’d still like them to sleep later, you can try these techniques but keep your expectations lower! Some kids will learn to hang out in their rooms until the clock indicates it’s time to start the day and that can be a more peaceful way to start the day for some families.
Leading up to the Time Change
Now that your expectations are adjusted you need to prepare ahead of time. In the week leading up to the Spring Forward time change you’ll want to make sure you optimize your child’s sleep environment and firm up your bedtime routine.
Ensure that it’s very dark where your child sleeps. Go into your child’s room at bedtime and turn off all the lights. Place your hand in front of your face. You should NOT be able to see your hand. Do the same thing first thing in the morning. If you have light coming in through the blinds and you really want your child to start sleeping later then block ALL the light.
Ensure you have a tried and true consistent and soothing bedtime routine. If you don’t already own an "okay to wake" type clock, purchase one and familiarize yourself with how it works. You don’t need the fanciest clock. Purchase one with a light that turns on when it’s time to start the day. Keep it simple and don’t go with the clock with all the bells and whistles. You don't need that.... trust me!
Once you have your environment optimized and your clock in hand, have a family meeting. Establish healthy sleep rules and introduce the clock. Let your child know that when they allow themselves and family members to sleep later in the morning everyone will have more energy to go to the park and run faster and jump higher.
I always prefer natural consequences over sticker/reward charts, but you know your children best so do what works for you. I’m also a huge fan of writing all of your sleep rules down and referring to them nightly. I like to have my kids do a fill in the blank routine each night. “At night we rest our…” and they say, “bodies”. I continue with, “so we can all sleep all night and see each other in the“ and they fill in, “morning”, I say, “when the clock turns” and they finish, “green”.
Start to use your clock in the week leading up to the time change. Set the clock to light up for the time your child is actually waking for the day, even if this is at an ungodly time of the morning. If they are starting their day at 4:30 AM then set the clock for 4:30 AM.
Now, when your toddler wakes and sees the clock is green, allow them to start their day right away. Give lots of praise to them for staying in bed until the clock told them it was okay to get up.
Show them how you have more energy during the day which might allow you to take them to the park or play outside in your backyard. These things are rewards, but they are also natural consequences of having more energy and being more well rested (even though it wasn’t exactly natural for you to feel well rested waking at 4:30 AM!). Comment on how they seem to be running faster today. You’re showing them how following sleep rules makes everyone feel better.
If your child did really well for two or three mornings with the clock changing color at their early wake up time, you can start to creep the time later. Don’t be too aggressive because you want them to be successful. You can move it 5-10 minutes later every other day or so.
This part of the process can work anytime of the year and not just right before the Spring Ahead time change. What you are doing is showing them that when it’s time to wake up, you’ll come get them. In doing so, they can relax, knowing that there is a routine to follow. Kids love routine.
Also keep in mind that our circadian rhythms are mainly governed by light and food. If you're feeding your child before the time you want them to start their day, this can reinforce that early waking.
Bright lights including lights from screens can also reinforce early risings. Keep it dark and boring until after the time you'd like your child to wake.
Somewhat related are other super fun activities that occur right when a child wakes. Getting to go to their parents' bed first thing in the morning can be fine for some children. For some other children, knowing that they get to go to their parents' bed as soon as they wake can also reinforce the early risings. Again, know your child and what they need to help make the shift!
It's Time to Spring Ahead!
So now, fast forward to the night before the time change. This year that means Saturday night March 11th, 2023.
Put your child to bed at their normal bedtime. Make sure you spring the time on your child’s clock forward/later by 1 hour before they go to bed. Now change the time the clock says it’s "okay to wake" to an hour later than the previous day. Remember that if you just sprung the time on your child’s clock forward and let them wake naturally, they would probably wake an hour later than normal. Their body would wake when it felt like their usual early riser time, but the clock would say it was an hour later. So make sure that the time the clock changes color reflects this later time, otherwise the clock may wake your child up an hour earlier and you will have foiled your progress!
The morning of the time change, Sunday March 12th, 2023 rejoice when you all sleep in an hour later! But…. Your work isn’t quite done! If you put your child to bed at the same time as usual Sunday night, their body will perceive that as one hour earlier.
If you think your child is overtired and needs this earlier bedtime, then go for it. But I caution you that it could result in your child going back to waking at their super early morning riser time again. So, my advice is to start with a later bedtime and then slowly move it earlier. So, if bedtime is usually 7:30 PM I recommend putting your child to bed 45 minutes later at 8:15 PM (which will feel like 15 minutes earlier to their body) for the first night or so. Then gradually make bedtime 15 minutes earlier every other night or every third night until you get to what you feel is an appropriate bedtime to allow a healthy amount of sleep.
Stay consistent with your clock use in the morning and with all of your routines. Don’t forgot to move your nap time(s) and mealtimes according to your time adjustments as well. If you plan to do bedtime 45 minutes later the day of the time change then do the same for naps and meals that day too.
Give your child a full week to 10 days to really get adjusted. Go outside lots especially in the morning and late afternoon to let the sunlight help adjust their circadian rhythms too.
Don’t forget to give tons of praise for staying in bed until the clock is green. When they have difficulty remembering to follow the clock use your sleep rules and stay consistent about what happens next. If you don’t want them out of their room before the clock says it's time to wake up, then return them to their room repeatedly without any fanfare. Then once the clock lights up make a big deal of how it’s time to get up. The more confident and consistent you are, the more likely your toddler is to follow your lead!
This topic of time change is super confusing and I myself have to really put my thinking cap on to figure it out. So don't feel bad if you need to do a little more reading or reach out for help!
You can read more about the Spring Ahead Time Change here.... Good luck!
Update, March 2nd, 2023.